Australia’s universities have not been immune to the ongoing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The international education sector has been hit hard, with repercussions extending across the country and the economy. Students, institutions, and accommodation providers – as well as other businesses which provide services for and benefit from international students – have all been significantly affected. International student enrolments – and more critically, commencements – are down, student accommodation buildings have been empty, and small businesses dependent upon international students are suffering – and in some cases, shutting down.
At the same time, the unprecedented crisis of the last two years has highlighted the indispensable contributions that international education makes to the nation. These contributions are not only economic, with international education supporting more than 250,000 jobs1 and contributing more than $40 billion to the economy in 20192, but also social benefits in terms of strengthening our social fabric, bringing new ways of thinking and doing things, filling jobs and skills gaps, and living as essential members of our communities.
As we recover from the pandemic, it is important that the messaging provided to prospective, current and past international students is consistent across government, is positively pitched and emphasises the valuable contribution they make to all aspects of Australian society. Furthermore, government should remain cognisant of the significant losses the international education sector suffered throughout the pandemic in terms of reputation, staffing and revenue.
Enhanced cohesion across government would also lead to more effective use of free trade agreements and other bi-lateral and multi-lateral agreements to facilitate trade policy that better supports our export services. Issues such as regulatory barriers and constraints set by other governments on qualifications and standards recognition could be pursued with more targeted efforts to achieve beneficial outcomes for the sector.
As international borders reopen, and effective vaccines are delivered around the world, international education will continue to recover. International students will return – gradually and safely – to Australia’s cities and towns, boosting economic activity and strengthening connections with the world – especially our Asia-Pacific neighbours.
This submission has five components, corresponding to the international education-specific Terms of Reference for this Inquiry:
- Challenges associated with the loss of international students
- Measures to attract and retain students to Australia
- Initiatives to ensure positive international student experience and skill building
- Opportunities for international education to support strategic and foreign policy objectives
Universities Australia would welcome the opportunity to engage further with the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade about the issues contained in this submission. Please direct any initial questions regarding the submission to Mr Peter Chesworth, Deputy CEO at [email protected].
Key recommendations for the Australian Government:
- In future crises, consider extending the eligibility of support services to student visa holders (subclass 500) and temporary graduate visa holders (subclass 485).
- Help to improve the international education experience in Australia by a) applying the fortnightly limit on international student working hours to paid work only and b) produce regular statistical updates around international student outcomes and employability.
- Consider international graduates as ideal candidates for skilled migration and provide clear and robust migration pathways.
- Automatically grant the temporary graduate visa to all international students who meet the course requirements for graduation and the relevant character conditions as assessed by the Department of Home Affairs throughout their course of study.
- Create a function within Jobs and Skills Australia to advise employers and industry groups on how to navigate the migration system.
- Replace the genuine temporary entrant visa requirement with a genuine student visa requirement, to ensure the student visa is not used by non-genuine students to enter the country, but without requiring a discussion of the applicant’s plans upon graduation.
- Recognise the soft power origins of international education and develop existing and new programs with a view to contributing to the Indo-Pacific region.